exploiting the war dead for “politics”?

Beth Gillin wrote Saturday’s lead story in the Philadelphia Inquirer about peace activists who commemorate slain American soldiers in public ceremonies. She also discussed Ted Koppel’s decision to read the names of the American dead on “Nightline,” and Gary Trudeau’s naming some fallen soldiers in Doonesbury. I saw this article because Gillin interviewed me and quoted me twice, but I didn’t give her any interesting or profound ideas to use. (You have to register with the Inquirer to read the story, unfortunately.)

Many of today’s peace activists say that they are against the war but not against our troops. They want to distance themselves from that wing of the anti-Vietnam movement that vilified American soldiers of all ranks. They explain that they are deeply saddened by the loss of American lives; indeed, that’s one of their reasons for opposing the war. They want to grieve publicly and also to draw attention to our losses, as part of an argument against the invasion and occupation.

Koppel (whose program provoked massive controversy) denies having an anti-war motive, but he admits trying to make an editorial point:

The reading tonight of those 721 names was neither intended to provoke opposition to the war, nor was it meant as an endorsement. Some of you doubt that. You are convinced that I am opposed to the war. I?m not. But that?s beside the point. I am opposed to sustaining the illusion that war can be waged by the sacrifice of the few without burdening the rest of us in any way. I oppose the notion that to be at war is to forfeit the right to question, criticize, or debate our leaders? policies. Or, for that matter, the policies of those who would like to become our leaders. ?Nightline? will continue to do all of those things in the weeks and months to come. But not tonight. That is not what this broadcast was about.

Meanwhile, defenders of the war argue that it is wrong to commemorate our dead in these ways, at this time. They argue that it shows a lack of balance to emphasize casualties without providing context, such as lists of Saddam’s victims. They accuse Koppel and Trudeau of doing something inappropriate for their respective roles. (Koppel is supposed to break news; Trudeau is supposed to entertain; and a list of people killed in the past is neither news nor entertainment.) They worry that public grieving will weaken morale. Finally, they smell political manipulation. They see reciting the names of dead Americans as a way to play on citizens’ emotions, to attack the incumbent administration under the cover of patriotism. They claim that the deaths of military people are being exploited to attack the military itself.

I’m strongly in favor of these commemorations. Since I’m basically skeptical of the war itself, my stance wouldn’t surprise or persuade anyone on the other side of this particular issue. However, I think it’s worth considering a more general point. In modern America, we tend to see “politics” as deeply suspect. Thus any mixing of “politics” with journalism or with mourning and ceremony strikes us as inappropriate. But “politics” includes trying to persuade one’s fellow citizens about important issues–including war and peace. Thus understood, “politics” is a very noble and serious matter. There’s no pollution or manipulation involved in combining “politics” with other things. Indeed, one cannot create serious art, religion, or journalism in times of war without some admixture of “politics.”

Many people have made up their minds about the war. They intend to vote accordingly in November, and they believe that everyone else should vote the same way, or else the election will be a travesty. In this context, people are looking very critically at news organizations, schools, and religious congregrations for signs that leaders are trying to influence the vote. Regardless of our opinions about the war, however, we ought to be able to stomach emotional and powerful statements by people on the other side. Otherwise, we evidently lack the maturity to handle “politics” when the stakes are high.

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